(Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint Press, 2015)
Noy Holland’s previous work includes the short story collections The Spectacle of the Body (1994), What Begins with Bird (2005), and Swim for the Little One First (2012), and they have been praised for their poetic intensity. The same trait is present in Bird, a short, dense foray into the mind of Bird (birth and last name not given), a mother of two (a boy going to school and a newborn girl, also unnamed), wife of the nicknamed Doctor Said So (real name not given), friend to Suzie, and former lover of Mickey. That names are haphazardly provided, or not at all, points to both the fluid nature of the characters and the unimportance of their identities. Mickey, however, christens the main character carefully: “‘I like birds. Birds know too fucking much, it’s spooky… Bunny, I could have called you, but I didn’t. I didn’t. People should be named for themselves.’” Bird presently lives a quiet life in the countryside with her family, distinct from the down-at-heel and drama-filled life she led a little over a decade before.
Much of the novel is spent evaluating those drug-filled days. The memories that swarm inside Bird, thanks partly to conversations with Suzie (who Mickey took up with when he left Bird), come across as more potent than the ones she’s building with her family. Such is the draw of her former life that the most lively prose is associated with time spent in squalor—the recollections of a shared dog, a bloody miscarriage, and a long truck drive in the southern U.S. with an oddball couple, Tuk and Doll Doll.
Power is key in Holland’s novel. The first pages detail how Bird participated in Mickey’s sadomasochistic games when he tied her to a floor and left her alone for more than a day. When he strips, she thinks, in what amounts to an intake of breath, “The fact of power; the fresh display.” He leaves her routinely, just as he breaks things and punches walls, cuts her lightly, and tries to smother her. Bird forgives Mickey—“‘Keep away from me, Bird. I’m not well.’”—out of sexual enslavement and dumb love. “I don’t think he meant to kill me, Mother. I just think he didn’t know,” she rationalizes to that dead parent in a letter, one of many that allows Holland the chance to provide a first-person point of view close in time to the action. The lovers choose a barely habitable apartment and meander through life. Bird’s miscarriage starts the decline of their relationship. Holland sets out the details succinctly: “They knocked Bird out to finish up with it, the old D & C, the flush and suck, dilation, curettage, good to go, up and out.”
Affected by this event, Mickey’s mood turns dark in the immediate aftermath. In a later conversation he says, “‘That baby of ours was nothing. We named her to be taken, to be nothing. She was tatters, Bird…. I never even wanted her. I only wanted you.’” As we follow Bird through the routines of her present life—helping her sleepwalking, bed-wetting son and nursing her daughter—we see that the loss of “Little Caroline” occupies Bird despite having been married for some years and twice giving birth. There are a few reasons why it’s in the forefront of her mind. As the mother of a newborn, recollections of the failed pregnancy arise; another is that remnants of births, or near-birth, reside in her; a third reason stems from Suzie, who brings Mickey up without regard to Bird’s settled state:
“You want someone to say his name to, but you won’t, not even to me… You say his name and the scenery goes to pieces. What I think? You should get in your car and find him. Leave your babies. Go to him. Find out who he still is.”
There is almost no plot in this short novel, or even characters apart from Bird (Suzie and the children are stock, the husband is almost invisible, Mickey is the epitome of the bad-boy lover), and there is little tension. What stands out is the intensity of Bird’s feelings about her past, about the degradation of the world, and about being a mother, conveyed through Noy Holland’s language. Cryptic remarks are scattered through the text, but what is most noticeable are the awkward clauses and abruptly ended sentences: “In a mood, Bird is, wanting. Like to take off. Like to scream”; “They walk the loop: neighbor, neighbor, sugar house, pond. Pretty little pond you can’t swim in. You’ll come out with an extra nose”; “Bird remembered her mother in it [a coat] and how the fur of the collar felt on her face and when she slid her hand through the arm of her coat how smooth it always felt like persimmon and lovely to touch and cool.” Bird is a novel built to slow the pace of our reading, encouraging us to puzzle out what’s left unsaid about a tumultuous relationship and a healthier domestic existence.
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Jeff Bursey is the author of Verbatim: A Novel (2010), Mirrors on which dust has fallen (2015), and Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (July 2016).